John Kerry: 'It is a dangerous time'

John Kerry stands behind the mic in The World studio

Former Secretary of State John Kerry has pursued multilateral diplomacy for decades. The World's Marco Werman asks him what it's like to watch the White House attempt to unravel his key achievements. 

Credit:

Steven Davy/The World

John Kerry served as Barack Obama's secretary of state for four years.

Before that, he spent five terms as a US senator. He cataloged all that time in a new memoir, "Every Day Is Extra." 

It's from that long vantage point that Kerry looks at the administration of Donald Trump. Kerry says Trump's tweets are crowding out meaningful discussion of the important issues.  

"The Trump tweetfest is really hurting our democracy in very serious ways and his falsehoods, his constant distortions and 'alternative facts' and even lies, are making it very difficult for democracy to function properly because you don't have a baseline of facts. And without facts, it's very hard to build consensus around an issue. So it is a dangerous time."

Kerry spoke with The World's Marco Werman about his time in leadership 

Marco Werman: Trump has pulled out of the Paris climate agreement — he's sunk the deal that you worked so hard for. 

John Kerry: This is where I differ with a lot of people. He has pulled out of Paris. But the vast majority of Americans have not pulled out of Paris. Governors all across our country, mayors across our country, are doing everything in their level damnedest to be able to live up to Paris. They have websites "we're still in" — and there is a slugfest going on to try to continue to meet the Paris accord. So 195 countries are still in this thing, 180 I think have signed it.

The Iran negotiation — Trump's pulled out. But you know China, Russia, France, Germany, Britain and Iran have not pulled out and they just held a meeting while Trump is there pulling out of the world and castigating the world and inviting the world to laugh at him in the United Nations. These six countries met to talk about how they can continue to live up to the deal. So that's why this election, this midterm, is so critical for our country. Because it's an opportunity to have a midcourse change. 

So a lot of countries are still in the deal — but in this country, 63 million people voted for Donald Trump, 66 million for Hillary Clinton. We know how that went. And it's not just populism here, it's all over the world with the rising right in Europe, other places. What fuels that anger, do you think? Why is this happening? 

I think that's completely understandable. I don't see any mystery in this at all. Globalization scares people. Technology is coming at people faster than they can manage to assimilate. And it scares people. And the structural inequity in America, 51 percent of all America's income goes to one percent of Americans. That ought to make anybody angry. That is not a sustainable political social equation.

There's far too much money in American politics. It's not the rules of the Senate that are broken or the rules of Congress — it's the people. People have come into both houses who don't want to compromise, who are adhering to an orthodoxy of their party. And the most inexcusable thing that I have seen in perhaps all of the time I was in elected public office, is the unwillingness of Republicans who I know complain privately about what's happening in the White House and about Donald Trump. But they said they're more concerned about their power as chairman — more concerned about their party and preserving the president than they are about upholding their oath to uphold the Constitution, the United States and to protect the institutions of our nation. 

People are really deeply dissatisfied with the ruling political class. I mean it's seen in Brexit and in the election of Donald Trump. And, rightly or wrongly, you get lumped into the political class of elites. You check off some of the boxes: wealth, celebrity friends. Do you feel like you really understand, at a deeply personal level, the intense anger that led to Donald Trump? 

Of course I do. Are you kidding? I mean, look, I got elected five times to the United States Senate. And look at the things I fought for as a senator, because I was the guy who blew the whistle on Ronald Reagan and Oliver North and the Contras. And I was the guy who took on the [Bank of Credit and Commerce International], the corrupt bank that was laundering Noriega's money, and took on Clark Clifford and major people in the party. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I'm proud of my record as an outsider in Washington who is willing to fight. So, I don't feel any need to debate it now. The mere fact that you come from wealth and I don't come from that much wealth, mind you. I've got relations who are a lot wealthier than I. 

But I had a privileged upbringing. No question about it. But guess what. It's the title of the book because I've always lived by the notion that if you're given a lot, you owe a lot. And that's why I went into the service. That's why I came back and fought against the war. That's why I've been an environmental leader in any number of ways and I'm very comfortable with my willingness to stand up and speak truth to power and take on the establishment when it's necessary. 

Speaking of Russia, it's increasingly unclear what's going to become of the Russia probe, especially given Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's precarious role right now. Are we in the grips of some quasi-Cold War hysteria about Russia and Russian interference in our electoral process? Or are we not concerned enough? 

No, I think Russia obviously has presented a very serious challenge to us in terms of its choices about democracy and attacking our democracy. In my conversations with President Vladimir Putin and with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, I got a pretty good understanding of what their perceptions are that drives this. But it's not an excuse. We need to be dealing with Russia. There is no settlement to Syria without dealing with Russia and Iran. I don't see that happening. There is no settlement to Yemen without being involved in the region in a way that involves also Iran and Shiite minority and so forth. I don't see the diplomacy being done to deal with that. So there are things happening that I think remain extremely dangerous and I don't think the president should be farming out American foreign policy decisions to other countries — which is what's happened. 

Mr. Secretary, you met with Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif earlier this year. Can you just set the scene for that meeting? How did it all happen? 

It's very simple. And there's nothing inappropriate about any of it. I mean, Henry Kissinger and other secretaries spent a lifetime meeting with other countries. Kissinger travels to Russia, travels to China. And you have conversations. You're not negotiating. That's the thing. I'm not negotiating anything when I have a meeting like that and I've only had meetings in the context of an international conference. So I haven't gotten together separately in some city with these folks. I was at a peace conference in Norway. I was at the UN General Assembly week in New York when [Trump] met with the Council on Foreign Relations, New York Times editorial board. I mean a whole group of people met because that's what happens that week in New York. And I met at the Munich security conference in the same way. Now all of those meetings, three of them, took place before Donald Trump had made up his mind what he was doing on Iran before he'd pulled out of the agreement. And I talked to Secretary Mike Pompeo at length before they made the decision and urged a particular point of view on him about how they might approach it. Since they've made their decision, I've had zero meetings with anybody. 

President Trump, as you know, accused you at the time of conducting shadow diplomacy. And I have to say, if Mike Pompeo or John Bolton had taken a meeting with one of America's adversaries during Obama's presidency — how would you have reacted to that? 

People did take meetings all the time. A meeting is not a problem. When a senator leads an effort to get 40 other Republican senators to sign a letter and you send the letter to the president of the country that we are negotiating with, and you're telling that president that they shouldn't be negotiating, that the deal won't hold. That's interfering in a negotiation. And that's what happened. That's what the Republicans did. When we were working on the issue of a resolution in the United Nations regarding Palestine and Israel and the whole peace process, Donald Trump, Jared Kushner and others in the administration were involved getting in the way of that process before they were even sworn into office.

So, they need to be a little careful here about what they're lobbying around. And again, I repeat, I'm not involved in any negotiation but I am involved as a citizen of the United States and a former secretary of state and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in informing myself about people's point of view so I can have a solid opinion and make good judgments about public policy which I will continue to speak out on. 

Do you have friends or colleagues who voted for Donald Trump? Do you talk with them about his presidency? 

Of course, I know people who voted for Donald Trump and I understand why they did. Some people who are, you know, true conservatives voted for him for the Supreme Court — for exactly what is happening now. That's why they voted for him. And many people disliked him, didn't trust his policies but felt they didn't then trust Hillary [Clinton] either. So you had this back and forth. In addition, people voted for him because they thought the system was broken enough that he could throw a few wrenches into the system and twist it and make some things happen. I think many of them are deeply surprised by the degree to which this presidency is a chaos presidency on a daily basis. 

Speaking of the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh's hearings do say a lot about our executive, our Congress right now — and the court. What does the rest of the world make of this hearing, do you think? What have you heard? 

People scratch their heads. They don't completely understand it. 

I mean they don't they get what's uniquely American about this hearing, this incident? 

Well, I'm not going to say it's uniquely American what's happening. But it's chaotic. It's a circus. It's a horrible way to manage the lives of both the nominee and a person who has something to say about that nomination. All of them, their families. I think about his daughters, I think about these things. It's not pretty. But on the other hand, you have to get to the truth. How do you get to the truth? The proper way to get to the truth is to have an investigation. I mean, it's astonishing to me that in the one breath many of the Republicans are saying, "Well we don't know enough" and "It's he-said-versus-she-said therefore, I'm going to vote for him." And some people have already made up their minds: They are going to vote for him.

They're trying to railroad it through. But on the other hand, they're not willing to have an investigation to find the facts that might tell them more about the situation. I find that unconscionable. It's just wrong. And then a whole panel of Republican men — [an] all-male panel — is incapable of asking questions of her. They have to hire a woman, professional prosecutor, to come in and do that, which is a statement: "We men are not capable of being civil and managing questions well." It's really seamy and extraordinary. 

You got a glimmer of this back during the JCP '08 negotiations when Benjamin Netanyahu came to Congress and it was party overtaking everything, right? 

Well that was, I thought, a very dark moment for the House of Representatives and for the speaker's office. I think it was completely inappropriate to ask the leader of another country to come over. It's the first time that's ever happened. And I can't imagine that, I mean if we had done that, if the Democrats had done that, you'd have heard such a screaming yell and cry of foul. It just wasn't appropriate. But it happened. It's done. It's over. We move on. 

What comes after Donald Trump? Do you think if we are in an era now of America-first, what is the post-Trump era going to be about? 

It's going to be about redressing the mistakes that he's made over the course [of his presidency]. I mean, look, do you know a constituency that is asking to have smog back in our cities? Do you know a constituency that wants to have more carbon dioxide and monoxide coming out of automobiles? I don't, except for a company that might make the cars or some corporate entity that might benefit. Well, guess what? Donald Trump is lifting the restrictions on automobile tailpipe standards. Do you know a constituency that wants to have coal dust in their rivers, in their lakes? We just read today about ash presenting a problem in Carolinas where they've had these floods. 

Well, no one wants that. 

He's lifting those restraints so I see all of that being reversed. I see us hopefully having a correction. Forty days is when we have the midterms and then we go on and have a really important correction in 2020. 

Well, no one wants that smog. But I mean they wanted Donald Trump to be president, so they could kind of 'drain the swamp' and not have to think about these big things that they're bombarded with. 

Well, the swamp is not being drained and everybody knows it now. The swamp is worse than ever in terms of the Emoluments Clause, the amount of money that's being siphoned through hotels in various places. I think it's an utter disgrace. The level of corruption in Washington today, the level of corruption within this administration. Look at the numbers of people who pled guilty already. They've all pled guilty. It's not just Robert Muller that's investigating them. They pled guilty.

This is the most corrupt administration we've seen since I don't know what. And it's astounding. And I think the American people are seeing that he's expanded the swamp. He's put his own family into the middle of the swamp as principal players in that swamp. And I think you know, it's pretty serious business. I know the hoops we have to jump through to come into office. I mean the number of recusals, the amount of examination of every dime that comes in and the severance, complete and total, from any business transaction or anything. And this guy is out there with his sons running the company and everybody's going to believe that they don't ever talk to him. Come on now. 

I'd like to ask you just one regret from your time on the world stage. And I ask you specifically about the 2002 authorization for war in Iraq. 

I made the mistake of believing what I was told both by the secretary of state and the president that they were going to exhaust the remedies of diplomacy — that they were not going to rush to war, that they were going to try to bring a coalition to the table and that they were not going to use the vote as an excuse to go to war. But they were going to use the vote in order to leverage Saddam Hussein to open up his inspections. I went to the United Nations and met with the UN Security Council to ask them if we take two or three months now to exhaust these remedies and Saddam Hussein doesn't open up, would you then be supportive of using force? And they said yes. So I thought that there was a bum rush to war on bad information. We were not told. I mean, I wasn't even told who one of the sources was, who, if I had known at the time was a source, I would have never done that. But, bottom line is, I did it because I thought as president that was an important power for a president to have as long as you behave properly. 

How much heavier was the burden for you on that vote because you're a Vietnam vet?

Well, I don't know about that, but it was certainly heavier because I was running for president. It did make life tough for a period of time in the course of the nominating process. But, in the end, it was very clear that I opposed the war, opposed what George Bush decided to do. I did not believe they had a strategy. I didn't think it was right for them to farm out to other people the task of killing Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains when they could have killed him with American special forces there. I thought it was not the kind of response that was necessary for the attack that took place in New York. 

One more question about regrets, which you do talk about in your book, the attacks on you when you ran for president over your time in Vietnam. The 'Swift Boating' episode. Do you wish you had struck out harder or more aggressively?

We did strike out aggressively. I mean, let's be very clear. It wasn't as if we sat back. Every major newspaper in America printed the true story, quoted the guys who were actually with me on the boat, guys who were in the action, quoted my records and what the captains and admirals and others had all written. So all of that got out. That wasn't the problem. The problem was it was on TV and there were some very strong and frankly well done but negative ads and those needed to be answered. And they weren't adequately answered. They should have been. And I think it would have made a difference.

But there were a number of reasons why they couldn't be — one of which was we were under financial restrictions and, as it is, I had to pull out of Colorado, to pull out of Virginia because of the diminished amount of money [we had]. You can't run a 50-state campaign for president on campaign finance reform, unfortunately. And so I wrote a long memo to President Obama when he was thinking about running saying, look, if you're going to run you have to go outside finance because you can't run a 50-state campaign. 

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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